One of the things we hear a lot when people are trying to make tough decisions is to “let your conscience by your guide.” The idea being that if you’re having trouble figuring what to do in any given situation then do what you “feel” to be the right thing, don’t do anything that would hurt your conscience.
In a lot of ways this is a good principle. For example, in Romans 14, the apostle Paul teaches the principle of not violating your conscience. He even says it would be a sin for a person to do something that he believed to be wrong, even if the thing itself was not necessarily wrong (Rom. 14:23).
In this passage Paul is specifically talking about eating meat. There were those who believed that eating certain meats would be wrong. Paul says that eating meat is not something that is right or wrong in itself, it is a matter of judgment or opinion.
However, even though eating meat is not right or wrong in itself, if a person believes that it is wrong and does it anyway then it is a sin for that person. We cannot purposely do something that we believe to be wrong whether that thing is actually wrong or not. This is the principle of “When in doubt, don’t!”
We cannot violate our conscience. So, in this way, yes our conscience should be our guide. But, it is very important to remember that this is in the realm of opinion or personal judgment. It does not, in any way, apply to matters of doctrine (cf. 2 John 9-11). The doctrine of Christ says what it says and there is no room for judgments or opinions in matters of doctrine.
So, when it comes to living the Christian life in faithfulness to God, should we just let our conscience be our guide? Is our conscience even a reliable guide that we could trust enough to follow?
The Bible is clear that we must keep a good conscience, we cannot purposely violate and go against our conscience to do those things that we believe to be wrong. But our conscience can only react to what we know.
When someone believes that what they are doing is right – even if it is wrong – their conscience will not bother them. For example, the Muslim who believes it is his religious obligation to kill infidels has no pangs of guilt when he blows up a bus full of women and children because he believes he is doing what is right and good.
His conscience would actually bother him if he didn’t kill them because he believes it is what he is supposed to do. His conscience has not been trained in such a way that killing innocent people will bother him. His conscience cannot be a reliable guide.
The Bible gives an example of this very thing. Before the apostle Paul became a Christian he was a very devout Jew (Phil. 3:4-6). As a Jew, he believed he was doing the right thing when he persecuted the church (Phil. 3:6). He brought Christians to trial and cast his vote for the death penalty (Acts 26:9-11).
Later, after learning the truth of the gospel and obeying it (Acts 22:16), he would refer to himself as “the chief of sinners” (1 Tim. 1:15) because of his persecution of the church. He had held the coats of those who killed the first recorded Christian martyr, Stephen (Acts 7:58; 22:20).
But, even though Paul later understood his great sin against God and his obligation to God for the forgiveness he had received (Rom. 1:14-15), at the time he was committing those crimes against Christ and His people (Acts 9:3-5), his conscience did not bother him in the least.
Years after he learned the truth of the matter he could still say that he had done it “in all good conscience” (Acts 23:1). How is that possible? How could Paul have actually killed Christians “in all good conscience”? Because he believed he was doing the right thing.
Did his believing it to be right make it right? Absolutely not! What he believed was wrong and what he did, he did in ignorance (1 Tim. 1:13).
Your conscience is only as reliable as the information it is reacting to. A person who has never learned the morality of God’s word and believed it to be the right and good way will not have a reliable guide when they follow their conscience. The reason Paul considered himself the “chief of sinners” even though his conscience never bothered him while committing those sins is because his conscience was reacting to incorrect information.
Someone who is letting their conscience be their guide may be following an ignorant guide! Study the word of God for the knowledge that can rightly train your conscience to be a reliable guide.
Norm Fields is the minister for the Church of Christ Northside meeting at 1101 Hogansville Road in LaGrange. He may be reached at 706-812-9950 or BibleQnA@NormFields.com.